Politicians press ahead with campaign for remaining polls

BEIRUT (AP) — A decisive victory in Beirut legislative elections for the son of slain former Premier Rafiq Hariri marked a turning point in Lebanese politics — a solid rejection of pro-Syrian politicians that began with the February assassination.
Hariri’s ticket won all 19 seats up for grabs in Beirut in Sunday’s voting. But other regions still to vote in the staggered elections will be far more challenging for Hariri, with entrenched pro-Syrian politicians forging alliances that could prove hard to defeat. Many observers expect the four-stage polls, the first free of Syrian meddling in 29 years, to sweep the anti-Syrian opposition to power, even though the main alliance has splintered.

The elections began in Beirut Sunday and run on the three consecutive Sundays in other regions to fill all 128 seats in the legislature.

Official results Monday showed Hariri, the son of slain former Premier Rafiq Hariri, and nine candidates on his list winning, with Saad Hariri winning five times more votes than his opponent. The other nine seats were uncontested wins for Hariri’s candidates because there were no challengers.

But turnout was low — only about 27 per cent of eligible voters, compared with 35 per cent in the 2000 parliamentary elections — reflecting public dissatisfaction amid calls for a boycott, lack of challengers and disillusionment due to the opposition infighting.

Jose Ignacio Salafranca Sanchez-Neyra, who heads an EU observer mission, downplayed the low turnout. “I really think that the most important thing is to give the right to the citizens to have the vote,” he said.

Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, congratulated Lebanon on the success of the first round of elections.

“The elections represent an important step for the Lebanese people towards full democracy and sovereignty,” Cristina Gallach, Solana’s spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Anti-Syrians have little chance of big gains in South Lebanon, where 23 seats in two electoral districts will be voted for on Sunday. The Amal movement and Hizbollah group, longtime rivals for control of the predominantly Shiite Muslim region, joined hands and are expected to win most seats. Amal is headed by staunchly pro-Syrian Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Hizbollah is backed by both Syria and Iran.

Already five candidates in southern Lebanon have won uncontested, including Rafiq Hariri’s sister, Bahiya.

So the anti-Syrian opposition is skirting the south and turning its attention on the eastern Bekaa and the central Mount Lebanon region, which votes June 12, and the north, which concludes the final stage of elections on June 19.

Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, plans to travel to the north and the east, where there is a sizable Sunni population, to join allies in trying to forge tickets and negotiate coalitions that could win the opposition more seats.

Hariri on Monday stressed his alliance with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Christian factions who “stood by us.” Speaking on his Future Television, he promised “to continue our alliances all over Lebanon … and we are with them all the way.” Hariri’s Sunni and Christian allies in the north face pro-Syrian Christians and Muslims and one-time opposition members who have decided to go it alone or are considering joint runs with pro-Syrians. In the eastern Bekaa Valley, Hizbollah and Amal also are expected to dominate the heavily Shiite Baalbek-Hermel constituency. So the opposition battle is in the western Bekaa and central constituencies. Reflecting Lebanon’s bizarre political alliances, Michel Aoun, a staunch anti-Syrian former army commander who broke with Hariri and Jumblatt, is running in the Christian heartland of Kesrwan-Byblos district against one-time allies and is challenging Jumblatt’s dominance in the Baabda-Aley mountain region overlooking Beirut.

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